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Jerome Lyle Rappaport

Jerome Lyle Rappaport
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Edward Glaeser

Edward Glaeser
Professor of Economics at Harvard University
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Stephen P. Johnson

Stephen P. Johnson
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Greg Massing

Greg Massing
Executive Director for the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service
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Alasdair Roberts

Alasdair Roberts
Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School
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Joseph Curtatone
Mayor, City of Somerville
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Tim H. Davis

Tim H. Davis
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Scott Harshbarger

Scott Harshbarger
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Vivien Li

Vivien Li
Executive Director of The Boston Harbor Association
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Guest contributors

Monika Bandyopadhyay
Suffolk University Law Student

David Barron
Harvard Law School and former Deputy Counsel for the Office of Legal Counsel in the US Department of Justice

Linda Bilmes
Senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Assistant Secretary of Commerce during the Clinton Administration.

Brandy H.M. Brooks
Director, Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, Bruner Foundation

Felicia Cote
Rappaport Fellow, Harvard Law School/Harvard Kennedy School.

Amanda Eden
Suffolk University Law School student

Sara Farnum
Student, Suffolk Univ. Law School

Kristin Faucette
Student at Suffolk University Law School

Benjamin Forman
Research Director, MassINC

Arthur Hardy-Doubleday
JD/MBA student at Suffolk University Law School and the Sawyer School of Business

Theodore Kalivas
Boston Green Blog, Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy

David Linhart
Student, Boston University School of Law

Antoniya Owens
Research Analyst, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

Susan Prosnitz
Senior Advisor, TSA, Washington, DC

Ben Thomas
Boston Green Blog, Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy

Matthew Todaro
Student at Boston College Law School

Alexander von Hoffman
Senior Researcher, Joint Center for Housing Studies

Brett Walker
Student, Boston College Law School

Margarita Warren
Student at Suffolk University Law School

Bargaining for Reform: Changing Course in Underperforming Schools

Friday, May 13th, 2011
By Monika Bandyopadhyay

The Massachusetts legislature recently passed a bill providing superintendents unprecedented flexibility to change teacher collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) in under-performing schools. The bill ushers in a new kind of collective bargaining that could be effective in closing a persistent achievement gap. Whether these changes will successfully address one of today’s most complex and urgent public policy challenges will turn on implementation.

Massachusetts is plagued by an achievement gap along racial and socioeconomic lines, even while on average Massachusetts’ students are among the highest performing in the United States and internationally. In 2009, just 35 percent of low-income students were proficient in English/Language Arts compared to 65 percent of whites and Asians; 15 percent of low-income students were proficient in math compared to about 50 percent of whites and Asians. Students at the losing end enter society ill prepared for higher education and skilled jobs.

Feeling the pressure to reverse poor academic outcomes, superintendents pointed to the collective bargaining agreement as an impediment to the innovative personnel and structural changes that might narrow the achievement gap. By maintaining the status quo, the bargaining agreement failed to address the challenges of underperforming schools. Superintendents argued that given the chance, they could make the changes necessary to raise student achievement levels.

Teacher collective bargaining agreements differ from their private-sector counterparts because teachers are deeply involved with setting education policy, which is normally the purview of management. Collective bargaining in education affects policy to such an extent that the agreements become school or district policy. For example, the collective bargaining agreement outlines with great specificity staffing levels, professional development hours, payment schedules and methods of evaluation. Also, the agreement affects structure by setting school-day hours and instructional time. These multiyear contracts prevent a school from quickly adopting or rejecting new policies and practices as student needs change.

Beginning in 2008, Mayor Thomas Menino and Governor Deval Patrick provided high-level political support for providing superintendents with the flexibility they desired. Mayor Menino’s Readiness Project created a 10-year plan for greater school choice by establishing more charter schools and innovation schools, and a plan for turning around Boston’s lowest-performing schools. Governor Patrick’s Executive Office for Education extended a similar program to the entire state and altered some collective bargaining rights in the new law. While there was great opposition from teachers unions, the promise of federal dollars clinched passage.

President Obama’s Race To The Top program provided the final push for Massachusetts to enact comprehensive education reform. A state would receive a grant if it were daring enough to “create the conditions for reform” by giving schools the flexibility and autonomy to change staff selection and school structure. To meet federal criteria, Massachusetts had to create a structure in which the CBA could change in the middle of the contract. The Massachusetts legislature responded to the President’s call to action by passing the bill in January 2010. Massachusetts was awarded a $250 million Race To The Top grant in August 2010.

Passage of this bill opens a new chapter in the role of collective bargaining in education. And while the bill creates the foundation for education reform, it is far too early to declare victory.

The law builds on the idea of “reform bargaining.” Reform contracts are rooted in the idea that teachers and superintendents have common interests: as professionals, teachers want to provide an excellent education for students, and as administrators, superintendents want a school system that meets the highest student achievement goals. For teachers in under-performing schools, “reform bargaining” blurs the line between the union and management by using cooperative processes for frank and open discussion based in shared interests.

A statutory requirement for reform bargaining in underperforming schools forces the parties to carefully consider the compromises required to better educate students. Faced with evidence of four to seven years of school underperformance, stakeholders at these schools will have to answer tough questions — about teachers’ ability to meet student needs, whether professional development is effective, and whether more teaching time is necessary. Unions will have to negotiate with a sense of trust, if not in the individual parties then at least in the process.

The bill’s success hinges on maintaining an overarching tone of cooperation.

In their opposition, some unions voiced a preference for collaboration and a concern that reform would be done “to” them rather than “with” them. Reform contracts address such concerns by grounding the negotiations in common interests. Teachers, however, must be willing to consider proposals by acknowledging and adjusting to a changed work environment. Since teachers are included in the process, it will be crucial that they use their voice as part of the solution.

Superintendents must use their new discretion by setting a reform agenda and making proposals. A bold superintendent will work with teachers to extend the school day, create merit pay systems and develop new evaluation methods. By contrast, overly cautious superintendents do a disservice if they do not accelerate change by taking advantage of these options.

Recent contract negotiations in Lawrence and Boston offer an illustration.

In Lawrence, the superintendent and president of the union embraced reform bargaining by working together to authorize reform-minded initiatives. Recognizing the role of teachers in the turnaround process, they agreed to create school-based teams of teachers and administrators to make decisions for the school. They also successfully authorized a new teacher evaluation system and plans for additional instructional time.

With an assertive superintendent and a resistant union, the process has played out differently in Boston. After reaching impasse, a joint resolution committee finally reached agreement on a longer school day, more professional development, a “pay for performance” program and creation of “fresh start” schools from which half the staff could be transferred. But there remains concern that the changes were made in a top-down way.

Teachers and superintendents can change the system in real time by accepting responsibility and making the changes together. Closing the achievement gap will not happen in the legislature or at the bargaining table, but in a classroom with a teacher. The aim is not to attack collective bargaining agreements, but to make them responsive documents that account for changed circumstances.


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